“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” It’s an old saying that, unfortunately, human beings don’t really believe. Or at least it doesn’t drive our behavioral decisions.
Before the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, if you had asked most Americans if we should help African countries develop good healthcare systems, the answer would have been a resounding NO. Now that Ebola is threatening the world, we are sending in the Army to set up field hospitals, and panic is beginning to rise here in this country as the first case lands in Texas.
Now that we sense a threat, we are willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a cure for a situation that might have been preventable at a fraction of the cost. Over thirty years ago I heard a presentation about a wonderful innovative healthcare system in an African country that trained local healthcare workers to diagnose and treat many common illnesses. Such a system would help the local populations, it could identify outbreaks of more serious illnesses, and it would save money by preventing premature death and costly travel to far away hospitals.
The price tag for this system was $1 per person across the entire country. But they couldn’t find the money and the project was abandoned. Such a system, implemented 30 years ago, could have prevented the plague we are seeing today.
I’m not sure when, or if, we are ever going to understand that the great problems of our time are all interconnected. Climate change, population growth, poverty, economic disparity, disease, war, immigration. These are not independent issues.
If we don’t want plagues, then we cannot have millions living in filth and squalor. If we don’t want massive ‘illegal’ immigration then we cannot have ecosystems collapsing, people being bombed out of their homes, and huge wastelands of economic despair. And what we are also beginning to see, is that finding ‘cures’ for all of these problems will not only become too expensive for anyone to afford, but the problems will outstrip our ability to find solutions even if we had the money.
So why is ‘prevention’ so hard and ‘cure’ so appealing? I believe the answer is actually quite simple.
Prevention requires that we change ourselves while cure is an adrenaline driven activity of heroism. In prevention we realize that the problem lies inside of us and we need to adjust the way we live. In cure the problem lies outside of ourselves and we are going fix it, become the hero, and pat ourselves on the back. With cure we never need to see that we were part of the problem in the first place.
John the Baptist came out of the wilderness, that place of deep spiritual self reflection, and said “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Repent is prevention. He didn’t advertise cure saying, “Wait till you get in trouble and then get fixed for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”
But from the point of view of our habitual mind, prevention just seems like a pain in the neck. Why exercise? Why stop drinking soda? Why send money to Africa? Why try and understand someone else’s life and perspective? I’d rather wait till disaster strikes and then read a lot of stories of heroism on CNN for an emotional high, or post “praying for you” on Facebook.
Prevention is the hard work of waking up to reality, and as the title of the movie tells us: Reality Bites.
Maybe so. But as every spiritual tradition in the history of the world has recognized, prevention, the work of spiritual transformation, is also the only way to free ourselves and our world from suffering. And it turns out that the Kingdom of God is always at hand if we are just willing to turn and try another way.